Let me attempt to unpack them for you historically.
The White Horse
Where in the Bible, and especially in the Revelation, was white used symbolically for anything other than good? The white horse represents the church turned loose on the Great Commission, ca. 30 AD.
The Red Horse
The color invokes the thought of blood, fittingly, the rider is tasked with taking peace away from the earth. To understand this image, we cannot overlook the "world" in which John, the early church, and Palestine existed (and the world that becomes important again in the end). It was a Roman world that rested comfortably in the Pax Romana. Into that tranquility dropped the Emperor Commodus, and then everything went down the commode (HT: Gordon Anderson for that mnemonic device). The red horse represents the loss of the Pax Romana, ca. 192 AD.
The Black Horse
Grain was effected by the famine unleashed by this rider, but not oil and wine. Why? The crops that produce oil and wine were grown in more southerly climes than was grain. The implication is that this broken seal effected northerly climes more than southerly ones. Factor in the color, which (at least to me) speaks of the loss of sunlight and warmth, and out pops the Little Ice Age as the proximate cause of the shortage. The black horse represents the Great Famine, ca. 1315 AD.
The Jaundiced Horse
Even though this rider has the power to kill by sword and famine, like the two before it, its unique claim to fame is the decimation of one fourth of earth's population by the added means of pestilence and wild beasts. The combination of details could not describe better in condensed, artistic language the outcome of the bubonic plague. It was world-wide, borne by rats, and caused enough chaos in its wake to produce war, anarchy and famine. Most importantly, it killed a fourth of the population of the entire earth. The jaundiced horse represents the Black Death, ca. 1347 AD.
Often, the assumption is that martyrdom was a phenomenon of the early church, but point in fact, their numbers were not large then. That changed with the advent of Protestantism in the sixteenth century, when a sudden uptick in the numbers of martyrs rose relatively quickly to become a flood of multiplied thousands. The rate is still escalating today-- it must be getting downright crowded under that altar! Why doesn't God step in and put an end to it? It's a full number deal again. Suffice it to say, this seal represents the increase in martyrdom that began with the Reformation, ca. 1520 AD.
These five seals are historical to us. Their initial breaking unleashed something, that still reverberates in the warp and woof of current events. For instance, the church is still actively engaged, and more successfully than ever, in winning the world to Christ; the world has never been as peaceful again as it was before the unleashing of the red horse; severe grain famines have occurred over and over again since the black horse went riding; frightful pandemics seem to cycle through regularly since the pale horse first clip-clopped over planet Earth; and martyrs are being killed today at record pace though that "seal was broken" 500 years ago.
The rest of the seals, which remain prophetic rather than historical will be covered in my next posting.